Holiday parties are an excellent opportunity for employees to socialize outside of the office, and to reward employees for their service, they can also give rise to employer liability. Before planning your next holiday soirée, review the potential pitfalls and solutions below so that your event can be full of cheer, rather than unpleasant lawsuits.
Serving Alcohol at Company Functions
While having alcohol available may make typical water cooler conversations less awkward, it can lead to liability for employers in the form of vicarious liability, sexual harassment, social host liability, and other potential issues.
Even though refraining from serving alcohol altogether is the safest option, in the event that your company plans to serve alcohol at you next function, keep the following tips in mind:
• Never, ever serve alcohol to minors (in the event minors are invited to the event, require proper ID and issue wristbands to adults 21+);
• Ensure that there are sufficient non-alcoholic beverages and food to accompany the alcohol—intoxication can be exacerbated when guests drink on an empty stomach;
• Issue drink tickets to limit guests’ alcohol consumption;
• Host a “cash-bar,” at which employees must buy their own drinks.
• Discourage employees from drinking excessively and immediately stop serving guests who are overly intoxicated;
• Hold the party at an off-site location, such as a restaurant with a liquor license and professional bartenders;
• Arrange transportation home for employees, or provide credit/pre-paid rides from taxi companies or rideshare companies.
• Hold the party at an earlier time in the day; and
• Limit the duration of the party to reduce the amount of time employees spend consuming alcoholic beverages.
Sexual Harassment Liability
While some employees may be using the excuse of a holiday party and “liquid courage” to make their feelings known to their crush, or simply lose their manners, under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), employers are responsible for providing a workplace free of harassment. Employers must take all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring, even if the incident occurs off-site at a company-sanctioned event.
Employers should take care to avoid risky holiday customs such as hanging mistletoe, which can encourage physical contact.
As always, employers should take every employee harassment complaint seriously, and investigate and respond in a timely manner.
Sensitivity to Religious and Non-Religious Beliefs
Employers should be aware of potential religious discrimination issues that may arise in the context of a holiday party. Although the EEOC and courts consider certain decorations to be secular in nature (such as wreaths, Santa, and Christmas trees), employers should make every effort to avoid objects, theme parties, or activities with religious symbolism. The best practice is to make a holiday party as inclusive as possible.
If an employee objects to a particular practice or custom on religious grounds, an employer must offer a reasonable accommodation to the employee. A good solution for this is to ensure the holiday party is voluntary, not mandatory, and that employees do not feel pressured or expected to attend.
With the holidays approaching, company parties can be an excellent way to say “thank you” and boost morale among the office. Rather than being discouraged by potential liability, take the time to plan ahead so that employees can enjoy a fun and safe event.
—Jennifer A. Grady, Esq.
Founder, The Grady Firm, PC,